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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
Crédit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd found himself celebrating for the second time in a week after winning Sunday’s eighth stage of the Tour de France. After claiming the yellow jersey for a day on stage 2, the Norwegian road champion won Sunday’s 168km stage from Lamballe to Quimper with a strong, uphill sprint.
Under a torrent of cold Breton rain, Hushovd defeated Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen (Fassa Bortolo) and Germany’s Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) in that order. Taking fourth place, but reclaiming the sprinters’ green jersey from Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis), was his compatriot Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo).
“The Vikings have returned to Brittany,” Hushovd told The Associated Press. “Today really was my day. I’m very happy.”
Thomas Voeckler (Brioches la Boulangere) held on to the yellow jersey for the third day running after arriving a few seconds after Hushovd in a peloton, which included all the main race contenders — German Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) in 21st place, followed by Americans Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal) 31st, Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) 22nd, and Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) 30th, then Spaniard’s Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) in 50th and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) 62nd.
“I had a look at the (stage) details this morning and I knew the finish was difficult, but that it would suit me,” said Hushovd.
Despite an enticing attack by Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini with a little more than 1km to go, Hushovd kept his cool. Another attack by Kirchen appeared more dangerous, but after a perfect lead-out from Kiwi teammate Julian Dean, Hushovd let his legs do the talking to coast past the Luxemburger on the home straight.
“With about 500 or 600 meters to go Kim Kirchen attacked, then Julian Dean sat in front for me again and did a brilliant job,” he said. “After we turned the final corner I started chasing down Kirchen, but I felt so good in the last 200 meters it was an easy win.”
Transfer then rest
Immediately after the stage, the riders showered, changed, drove to the Quimper airport and flew 500km to Limoges, where they will spend tomorrow’s rest day. After that, the pace in the Tour steps up with a challenging three-day passage through the Massif Central.
Armstrong, who could decide to shake up the race on the 10th stage from Limoges to St Flour on Wednesday, remains nine minutes and 35 seconds behind the 24-year-old Frenchman, with Ullrich still at 10:30 ahead of Monday’s rest day, the first of two on the Tour.
Armstrong, the defending champion and five-time winner of the race, was happier to have a first week of wet weather rather than the heat wave of last year.
“Everybody is sick and tired of the rain,” he said. “I’m a little scared because we’re going to Limoges and yesterday I saw on TV that it’s the coldest place in France (right now). But anything over last year, with 35 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit), is better. It was so hot you couldn’t sleep.”
Early attacks and the usual crashes
The bunch sprint was assured when the day-long break that formed after 20km — made up of Dane Jacob Piil (CSC), German Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) and Italian Mateo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo) — was caught with 10km to go.
The three slipped away after a futile attack by former Tour de France prologue winner Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole). Piil pushed ahead and was joined by three riders: Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo), Karsten Kroon (Rabobank) and Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner). Kroon was soon dropped due to a puncture, but the three others went on to build a lead of more than five minutes before being caught with 10km to ride.
Two kilometers later, a crash at the back of the peloton took down a handful of riders after a dog crossed the road, leaving AG2R rider Samuel Dumoulin of France with arm injuries. He was the last man to cross the finish line. The overall leader, meanwhile, was enjoying his third day in the yellow jersey, and gave thanks to his team for its work on his behalf.
“The team worked hard early in the stage, and again my thanks goes out to them,” Voeckler said. “Piil was on the attack, and since he was the best placed of the escapees we had to keep an eye on things.”
The task of controlling the tempo was assumed by Crédit Agricole (for Hushovd) and Quick Step (for Tom Boonen) — whose Italian King of the Mountains leader, Bettini, attacked with a bit more than 1km to go as the road went upward.
McEwen was quick to jump onto Bettini’s wheel and the pair had 20 meters lead as the road flattened.
Bettini signalled with his head to McEwen for him to take a turn at the front; but the Australian would not take the bait. And after a brief exchange of words the pair surrendered their chance.
“He didn’t want to continue with me. He wanted me to ride. I wanted him to ride. So neither of us rode,” said McEwen. “You don’t win the stage by riding on the front for someone else.”
So with the two danger men caught, Kirchen then attacked just before the final corner and took a 20-meter lead into the finish straight. But Hushovd raised his big body out of the saddle, powered a big gear out of the turn, and passed the Luxembourg champion with 10 meters to go, to win the stage by three lengths.
In keeping with the pattern of the week, Sunday’s stage saw more crashes, although this time around all 176 riders survived to reach the finish line, albeit the last to cross — Frenchman Samuel Dumuoulin (AG2R) — did so 10:51 behind the leaders after he hit the bitumen with just 7km to go. The crash, with about nine others riders, was caused by a dog suddenly darting across the road as the race passed by.
For Hushovd, the stage win again brought him into the frame as a green jersey contender. Only 11 points separate the first four riders in the category, with McEwen leading on 158 points, followed by O’Grady (149 points), Zabel (148 points) and Hushovd (147 points).
Hushovd’s win was one of the most convincing so far, and he let everyone know it as he beat his broad barrelled chest three times with clenched fists. “I knew this morning when I looked at the map that this finish is good for me, and with the cold,” said Hushovd. “Normally I am going well when it is cold and raining. I was so motivated and so happy when I went over the line.”
Hushovd was quick to say that he has his eye on the points jersey.
“I will do all I can to get the jersey in Paris,” he said. “And I think these guys like Robbie and Stuey … they will have to fight a lot to keep it.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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